“I’m not pointing any fingers,” says Atta Aneke, on the phone from Norway. “They acted in good faith, just as we acted in good faith,” he continues, “They just had the wrong information and dealt with the wrong people.”
“They” in this instance refers to the New York Red Bulls and Stellar Group player agent Damani Ralph. On January 23, 2018, Ralph provided Once A Metro with a detailed account of his effort to arrange the transfer of teenage talent Jerome Philip from a club in Nigeria - Gee-Lec FC - to RBNY. Philip is currently in Norway, on trial with Lillestrom; Ralph’s point was that the player should have been preseasoning with RBNY - indeed, that the player had signed a contract pledging his future to the Red Bulls in December.
Lillestrom and the agent who arranged Philip’s ongoing trial with the Norwegian club disagree. Their side of the story, related directly to OaM and also shared with the Norwegian press, is that RBNY would appear to have been misinformed about the appropriate party in control of Philip’s playing future.
Player agent Aneke reached out to Once A Metro to offer his understanding of matters relating to Jerome Philip, and to correct the record - starting with the fact he is Norwegian, not Nigerian as erroneously stated by OaM.
From Aneke’s perspective, the situation surrounding Philip - with RBNY reportedly set to contest any potential transfer of the player to Lillestrom (or anywhere else, one would assume) - is a regrettable misunderstanding. Specifically, Aneke suggests, the misunderstanding is over which club controls Philip’s economic rights and all-important International Transfer Certificate (without which, an international transfer cannot be completed).
Like Damani Ralph, Aneke first saw Philip play at a scouting tournament in Nigeria. Unlike Ralph, when Aneke looked into the question of the player’s existing club attachments, his inquiries directed him to Yobe Desert Stars, not Gee-Lec Football Club.
YDS won promotion to the Nigerian Premier League for the 2018 season. Aneke shared a copy of Jerome Philip’s “player passport” - the document that details a player’s registration history - with OaM. The document shows Philip was loaned to YDS by Gee-Lec Football Club in January, 2017. Per the same document, on November 26, 2017, YDS made the transfer permanent, thereby assuming control of the player’s economic rights.
When seeking to arrange a trial for Jerome Philip with Lillestrom, Aneke negotiated with YDS. And the agent showed OaM a letter from the Nigerian club - dated November 12, 2017 - authorizing the player to trial with Lillestrom from January 5 to March 5, 2018.
During this process, says Aneke, “we were never told the player had any relationship with Red Bull whatsoever”.
Aneke agrees that he subsequently spoke with Damani Ralph, who did advise him of the agreement the player had made to join New York Red Bulls. Ralph’s version of events describes a phone call between the two men in which the US-based agent was surprised to be told the contract he had with Philip “doesn’t matter” and the player would be traveling to Norway regardless.
Aneke has a slightly different recollection of the call: not so much that the contract didn’t matter, but that it would appear to have been negotiated with the wrong people. Further, says Aneke, he has never seen a copy of the contract tying Philip to Red Bull.
If he or Lillestrom were aware of any valid obstacle to a player’s proposed engagement with the Norwegian club, says Aneke, the player would have been instructed to resolve the matter before pursuing any further relationship with Lillestrom. In this instance, Aneke was satisfied that he had the necessary authorizations from the player’s club, and advised Ralph that he appeared to have been misinformed about which club he should have been dealing with in Nigeria.
Nonetheless, Aneke rejects the claim in a report from Own Goal Nigeria that Philip’s trial has been so successful that Lillestrom is moving toward signing the player. The Norwegian agent states unequivocally that the club has not signed Philip and is not in the process of signing him: “they aren’t even at the point of making such a decision”. He is simply on trial.
Jerome has not signed with LSK, just on trial, he is owned by Yobe Desert Stars and not Gee-Lec.— Atta Aneke (@AttaAneke) January 23, 2018
LSK got approval from both club and double checked ownership with the Nigerian FA before they invited him for trial.
No copy of contract with Red Bull sent to neither me or LSK.
As such, Aneke has no opinion on whether or not RBNY has a case to bring to FIFA. There is no transfer to contest, since Lillestrom has not signed the player, and - since he hasn’t seen it - Aneke does not know whether the contract committing Philip to RBNY has any merit.
The position in Norway - also articulated by Lillestrom sporting director Simon Mesfin to VG - is that all appropriate protocols were followed with regard to Philip, and the club has the necessary authorization from Yobe Desert Stars for the ongoing trial:
We have confirmed from the [Nigeria Football Federation] that Philip belongs to Yobe Desert Stars, and then we have been granted permission from the club to allow him to work out. That is what we are dealing with. We are clearing up.
If Damani Ralph and Red Bull were misled about who they should be negotiating with over Philip, then it would appear that misleading was done by Gee-Lec Football Club, who would seem to have transferred a player attached to a different club.
The man in charge of Gee-Lec Football Club is Babawo Mohammed - a well-known, occasionally controversial, player agent and manager with several high-profile clients and friends (most famously, perhaps, former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel).
“We made a mistake,” Mohammed tells Once A Metro, on the phone. “We did not contact YDS,” he explains - and therefore Gee-Lec management was not aware that Yobe Desert Stars had exercised its option to buy Jerome Philip during the time Damani Ralph was negotiating a move to America for the player.
“Football business is not do or die,” says Mohammed. “If we cannot do something today, we can do something tomorrow. We must not fight among ourselves,” he says about a matter that, for him, is regrettable but also apparently settled.
Damani Ralph told OaM he first learned of a potential irregularity in the Philip deal when he called to ensure the player would make a January appointment with the US Embassy and was told that wouldn’t be happening because the player’s passport was at the Norwegian Embassy. Ralph said he was assured this would not prevent Philip from joining RBNY.
Mohammed says that he promised merely to talk to YDS, to try to persuade the club to honor the agreement Gee-Lec had made. But “Yobe Desert Stars are not interested in sending the player to MLS” - a fact Mohammed said he subsequently relayed to Ralph. And as things stands, “his ITC is with Yobe Desert Stars”: Gee-Lec Football Club cannot authorize a transfer to New York.
Per VG, neither Lillestrom nor RBNY is commenting on whether or not there will be a case presented to FIFA. But RBNY Communications’ Gordon Stevenson did tell the Norwegian outlet “the information you received from Damani Ralph is correct”.
From Ralph and RBNY, therefore, the story is simply that Jerome Philip signed a deal to join the Red Bulls back in December. Ralph supplied a photo of the signing to VG, in which he and Philip can be seen rifling through papers with “USL” clearly printed on the top sheet - this can be assumed to be a contract with the RBNY reserve team in the US second division. The Red Bulls’ case is that Philip is in breach of that contract by joining Lillestrom on trial instead of RBNY for preseason, and that any subsequent deal involving the player is void.
Lillestrom and Aneke, however, maintain that they received permission for the trial from Yobe Desert Stars, the club that holds Philip’s economic rights and ITC, as recorded by the Nigeria Football Federation. They have not seen any contract between Philip and RBNY, and do not understand how any such contract could have been signed without YDS’ authorization.
Finally, Babawo Mohammed - owner of Gee-Lec Football Club - does not dispute that he arranged Philip’s transfer to RBNY, but says he did so without realizing Philip was no longer attached to his club. As such, his club was not in position to authorize the transfer; the club that does hold Philip’s ITC - Yobe Desert Stars - does not want to send Philip to America, and remains committed to its arrangement with Lillestrom.
Both RBNY and Lillestrom have documented agreements they believe to be valid, but one must be wrong. For the sake of the 18-year-old at the center of the dispute, it is to be hoped it is settled quickly.